Games are for Humans, Gamification is for Dogs

By Will Simon

Pavlov’s dogs, that is.

Look – we’re all game designers, whether we realize it or not. As kids we played “don’t step on the cracks” or “I spy” to add some fun to a boring walk home or a family trip. Even back then, we were “gamifying” our lives without even knowing it.

So now that “gamification” is a thing, how did we forget about the fun and start seeing games only as reward systems? Yeah, games can be addictive. But that doesn’t mean we should use them like a carrot on a stick. Now that social gaming is a billion-dollar industry, it’s worth exploring a few ways that games are useful, for humans, beyond the points and badges.

1. Games build community.

Play emerged as a tool for social interaction, so it’s no surprise that in The Age of Social Media, games are more relevant than ever. Asynchronous games like Draw Something, which Zynga recently bought for $180 million, give friends a way to interact from a distance — and at their own pace. Game elements can also reinforce social networks, guiding user behavior and increasing participation (Twitter followers, Foursquare mayorships).

2. Games turn work into play.

Playing always beats working, so any work setting that can use game mechanics will most likely benefit from it. And the best cases of this usually go unnoticed — for instance, badges in the military. Gaming can even add a layer of fun to medical research — players of the research game Foldit recently made a breakthrough in the HIV battle that had stumped scientists for decades. And it only took them 10 days.

3. Games create new behavior.

Somehow games are able to make us check our cultural norms at the door, taking on a new set of rules defined by the game. Game designers call this phenomenon the “magic circle”. It’s why we say “don’t hate the player, hate the game” – we suddenly feel safe to explore new behaviors when it’s only a game. And it usually does take the form of a circle, like a poker table or a sports arena.

4. Games create a safe space to fail.

This is why games are so good for learning — they create a setting where failure is accepted, often encouraged. They let us try different approaches and learn from our mistakes without the normal pressure to avoid failure. If we’re not worried about doing something wrong, we’re much more likely to try it in the first place.

5. Games give us ownership.

Games force us to make our own decisions, and they’re the only medium that we talk about in the first person (e.g. “I beat the level!”). You never hear someone talk like that about a book or movie. They encourage us to become active instead of passive, which gives us ownership of the experience.

6. Games help us understand systems.

If a photo lets us view a subject as an image, a game lets us view it as a set of rules. Because of this, games are great at teaching us about systems. They help us grasp complex ideas, adapt to constraints and think in new ways. For instance, while a video might show how a product works, a game gives people a way to try it for themselves.

7. Games give us feedback.

Games give us a constant sense of how we’re doing, whether it’s through a progress bar, sound effects, or points on a scoreboard. But there’s a difference between arbitrary scores and meaningful ways of tracking growth and progress. A score is only as useful as the action it’s tracking – like saving money with Mint or learning to code with Codecademy.

8. Games adapt to us.

Games seek the balance point between boredom and frustration by increasing in difficulty, speed, or complexity to scale along with our skill level. Game designers call this balance point “flow” – the rest of us just call it “fun”. We should start viewing content and interaction as something that can scale and balance with the user as well.

9. Games help us solve problems.

It’s not a game if you aren’t solving a problem. If you give someone a goal, they’ll naturally want to reach it. Just make sure the steps in getting there are either fun or interesting.

For more on game design, have a read of Pew Internet’s The Future of Gamification report.

Photo courtesy of WasabiDoobie via a Commons Licence (some rights reserved): Lulu learns patience.

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